You know that old question: If you were stranded on a desert island what album would you bring? I have given this ridiculous question some thought as of late. By no small feat I chose The Books’ 2003 release Lemon of the Pink. That album more than anything in their collection balances the buzzing hive of sampled and manipulated human voices that range from hilarious to heart-breaking in a single song when placed inside of, above and beneath an equally manipulated ace guitar/bass/cello/electronic work. I never feel lonely when I listen to that record, even though the vocal samples are ripped out of their context and placed at the mercy of two pranksters/deeply sentimental humanists. You would basically have the whole range of human interactions before you every time you put on your headphones. They would become friends by the time you are rescued or your batteries run out.
With that said The Books fourth full-length album and first on Temporary Residence (what strange bedfellows) follows in a similar trajectory as their equally experimental predecessors. Per capita The Way Out has much more song-songs than the cut-paste collage experiments of their past work. These songs showcase Nick Zammuto’s relentlessly clever songwriting and newfound vocal confidence. His voice ranges from creaky frontporch folk on “Free Translator”, to commanding band-leader indie swoon on “All You Need is a Wall”. These two songs rank as career highs for the duo’s musicianship with Zammuto taking the lead with clunky, percussive gutitar lines and Paul De Jong filling in the corners with pathos-filled bowed cello lines and electronic manipulation of recorded brass instruments and sound effects. These songs speak to their delicate interplay as musicians more than any of the electronically produced scattershot of disco/funk/house styles that support their collage tracks.
“A Beautiful World” is in a league all of its own. A hymn to an irregular number disguised as a proto-disco track but with huge, rafter shaking canto-like multi-tracked vocals that owe more to Gregorian chant than to the languid back beat and instrumental flourishes. Incredible in every aspect.
The collage work. Yes, the Books are “that” band. And for the most part these tracks are solid, funny, sad, etc…Everything you would expect from The Books. A majority of the album pulls its best belly-laughs and thoughtful ruminations from self-help hypnotists and new-age gurus. But, The Way Out hits its biggest returns when it pulls from sources that are uncomfortably close. It is easy to externalize the yogis, and self-help masters as members of a sub-culture beyond ourselves. But when we hear the pathetic, and all too recognizable, longing swelling up beneath the message left on “Thirty Incoming” we realize that could be any of us at our most needy, or most nostalgic. The sincerity is too personal to be mocked, we end up feeling the phantom pangs instead, wishing we could fill that own void in our own lives. “Cold, Freezin’ Night” is a classic Books song that showcases their deft interplay between the duo’s acoustic instrumentation and perfectly edited sound effects and electronic production. The violent revenge fantasies of the young boy and girl, probably recorded in a fit of silliness, defy the subject matter by sounding like innocent little solipsisms spurred on by the thrill that the object of their hate may find and hear it someday. They probably didn’t count on a (modestly) huge audience listening in. You are so grounded.
But that is how it goes when you commit your thoughts to tape, paper, film, whatever. They are no longer your property. Your lack of physical prescence disallows any context outside of the one the listener decided to place it in. Since it is no longer yours it remains safely in the hands of the public (isn’t that right Gertrude Stein) or as a wav form on The Books hardrive just waiting to be used for their fifth full length.